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The History of Ni’ihau from Time Immemorial to the Ni’ihau Incident

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To be honest, Americans aren’t the best at history… or geography… So I won’t really judge you if you don’t know anything about Ni’ihau, Hawaii’s “Forbidden Island,” and the unique role it played in one important chapter of U.S. history.

Ever since I learned about Ni’hau, Hawaii’s westernmost inhabited island, I’ve been trying to learn more about the place I hope to someday visit. This destination is unique– in both the history of Ni’ihau and present-day culture – and while it takes a bit of effort to visit Ni’ihau, it’s definitely worth it.

History of Ni'ihau Hero

If you’re curious about visiting Ni’ihau, you might also want to know more about its history and culture. After all, these factors play a huge role in travel, especially to a destination as unique as Ni’ihau. On this page, you’ll learn all about the history of the island of Ni’ihau, from its violent volcanic formation to human settlement, and from the unforgettable Ni’ihau incident to the Ni’ihau you can visit today.

In this post, I promote travel to a destination that is the traditional lands of the Kō Hawaiʻi Paeʻāina (Hawaiian Kingdom) people. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.

5+ Million Years Ago: Formation of Ni’ihau

History of Ni'ihau - Volcano

Like all of the Hawaiian islands, Ni’ihau was formed through volcanic action. Using the age of its neighbor, Kauai, as an estimate, we can safely assume that the island of Ni’ihau first formed at least 5 million years ago. (Kauai is estimated to be 5.1 million years old.)

Despite being the westernmost inhabited island in Hawaii, Ni’ihau is not the westernmost island; it is the westernmost of the Southeastern or Windward Islands. There are still 130 other islands in addition to the seven inhabited islands, and most of these comprise the Northwestern or Leeward Islands.

Despite its proximity to Kauai, Ni’ihau has a very different climate – likely as a result of its unique volcanic formation and age. Where Kauai is humid and lush – it is nicknamed the Garden Island –, Ni’ihau is dry and arid. It has limited geologic formations such as mountains or cliffs to capture passing clouds and create moisture on the island, which leads the climate to be more like the African savannah than a tropical oasis.

Pre-1800s: Polynesian Settlers & Native Hawaiians

Aerial Photo of Niihau
Photo credit: Christopher P. Becker via Wikimedia Commons

The history of Ni’ihau dates back to the 4th and 7th centuries CE. Anthropologists believe that the original settlers of Hawaii were Polynesians who migrated northwest from the Marquesas Islands between the 4th and 7th centuries CE and then from Tahiti during the 9th or 10th century.

The Polynesians who arrived brought with them their native seeds, plants as well as animals. Not to mention their distinctive cultural traditions and excellent farming and fishing skills. To this day, the strong Polynesian agricultural tradition continues with Hawaiians. 

Around the 17th century, Ni‘ihau welcomed Kahelelani, its first great ali‘i (chief), who lent the name for the famous kahelelani shells. Kāʻeokūlani was another important ali‘i in the history of Ni’ihau. Prior to Hawaii’s unification, Ni‘ihau was divided into northern and southern portions. Kāʻeokūlani was the ruler of the north portion who wanted to achieve Ni’ihau unification. He and his brothers finally unified the small island after defeating his main rival, chief Kawaihoa in the battle of Pali Kamakaui. From this moment on, Kāʻeokūlani became Ni’ihau’s ali‘i, banished Kawaihoa to the south end of the island and moved to the middle of the island to exercise his power as the new ali‘i.  

Niʻihau and its people remained independent until 1810, when Kamehameha I, the founder and first ruler of the Kingdom of Hawai’i, annexed the island. 

As for the lifestyle, Ni‘ihau people’s traditional customs were mainly similar to that of the rural areas on the other islands. Natives would use grass to build homes using grass and resorted to fishing as their primary source of food.

Mid 1800s: Arrival of Non-Hawaiians

History of Ni'ihau - Francis Sinclair
Photo credit: Francis Sinclair

If the Sinclair family hadn’t arrived on the island, the history of Ni’ihau would be completely different today. 

Back in 1863, Elizabeth McHutchison Sinclair was a Scottish widow and the matriarch of the Sinclair family who lived in New Zealand. In the search for new cultivable land, Elizabeth and her family moved to Canada. However, the family soon realized it was nearly impossible to clear the wild and undeveloped Canadian lands for agriculture. 

Elizabeth had decided to move to California when Henry Rhodes suggested that they sail to Sandwich Island instead. King Kamehameha IV offered Elizabeth the island of Ni’ihau for purchase in 1864. Her children and grandchildren arrived on the island and decided to buy it. After paying a final purchase price of $10,000, Ni’ihau Island was Elizabeth’s and her family’s. Since then, Elizabeth, her family, and her descendants continue to run the island and almost exclusively inhabit it along with a few natives.

Ni’ihau has always been a secluded island, with two events revealing the resistance to allow visitors. In 1915, Sinclair’s grandson, Aubrey Robinson, closed the island to most visitors and allowed the entrance of native’s relatives with special permission only. Then, in 1952, the island altogether banned visitors, protecting the locals from a polio plague that was taking place in the Hawaiian Islands. 

Early 1900s: The Ni’ihau Incident

Ni'ihau Incident - Crashed Plane

Pearl Harbor is one of the darkest chapters in Hawaiian history, when the Japanese attacked the military base on Oahu and motivated the United States to enter World War II. What most people aren’t aware is of what happened after the attack – where did all of the Japanese planes that wrought the destruction flew away to?

Most Japanese bombers and attackers made it back to the aircraft carriers waiting for them. If you’ve visited the Pearl Harbor exhibits on Oahu, you’ve learned how aircraft carriers and these planes changed the whole nature of warfare in the mid-20th Century; the global focus shifted from watercraft, submarines, and missiles to airborne attacks and the ships that support them.

But one Japanese airman did not make it back. His ship crashed on Ni’ihau, and brought this small, relatively uninhabited, private island into the drama of Pearl Harbor too. This crash and the events that followed have been called the Ni’ihau Incident.

A Timeline of the Ni’ihau Incident

For additional clarity on the Ni’ihau Incident, it helps to have a timeline:

  • December 7, 1941 – The Japanese attack Pearl Harbor, and following the attack, Airman First Class Shigenori Nishikaichi crashed his damaged plane on Ni’ihau to wait for rescue. The Japanese mistakenly believed that Ni’ihau was uninhabited (at the time, there were 136 residents, including 3 of Japanese descent) and used the island strategically for rescue operations. Residents helped remove Nishikaichi from his plane, took his papers and pistol, and the Niihauans of Japanese descent – who also spoke Japanese – were able to translate Nishikaichi’s explanation for the crash and the events of Pearl Harbor.
  • December 8, 1941 – Island owner Aylmer Robinson was set to make his weekly visit to the island from Kauai, and the residents determined Nishikaichi would return with him to Kauai as a prisoner. Due to a ban on boating in Hawaii, Robinson never arrived, and the Niihauans kept Nishikaichi under guard for several days.
  • December 12, 1941 – After they attempted to purchase Nishikaichi’s papers, the three Niihauans of Japanese descent attached and broke Nishikaichi from his guarded location. They engaged in a night of terrorism against other local Niihauans in an attempt to destroy the Japanese pilot’s papers and signal for rescue.
  • December 13, 1941 – As part of a struggle, several local Niihauans were injured; in the process, Nishikaichi was killed, and one of his accomplices committed suicide. For his part – and injuries sustained – Niihauan Benehakaka “Ben” Kanahele received both a Medal for Merit and Purple Heart.
  • December 14, 1941 – Robinson, military authorities, and locals who had rowed the 17 miles to Kauai the night before arrived back on Ni’ihau, and took the two remaining accomplices into custody.

The Ni’ihau Incident lasted only one week, but was both terrifying and traumatic for the residents of Ni’ihau.

Resources About the Ni’ihau Incident

If you want an overview of the Ni’ihau Incident, Wikipedia is a good reference and dives into more detail of the specific people involved in each phase of the Ni’ihau Incident.

There are also two books about the Ni’ihau Incident:

Both books go into much greater detail about the timeline of events in the Ni’ihau Incident, as well as the historic context leading up to it, and the consequences and implications for Ni’ihau after the Incident. The 2006 novel East Wind, Rain by Caroline Paul also tells the story of the incident.

Additionally, there was a movie adaptation made about the Ni’ihau Incident. Called Enemy Within, this movie came out in 2019 and received some criticism for its casting decisions. It is based on the events of the Ni’ihau Incident, though like many Hollywood adaptations, the inspiration is only loosely followed. For those interested, it may be another way to learn about the events (more or less) without diving into more academic sources.

2000s: Ni’ihau Today

Visit Niihau - Holo Holo Charters
Photo courtesy of Holo Holo Charters

When King Kamehameha IV sold Ni’ihau to Elizabeth, he did it with the condition of preserving Ni’ihau’s culture and the life of its native inhabitants. A promise that the Sinclair family has honored to this day. 

The current owners are Bruce and Keith Robinson, great-great-grandsons of Elizabeth. Ni’ihau’s inhabitants still follow the kahaki, a traditional Hawaiian lifestyle dating back to the 1800s. Ni’ihau’s residents live an austere lifestyle. They don’t pay rent, have no telephone services, and use horses or bicycles as their primary form of transportation. Ni’ihau has no paved roads or power lines. There’s no proper plumbing or running water either as water comes from rainwater catchment.

The Polynesian fishing and farming traditions are still alive for some inhabitants, and many natives resort to these skills to support themselves. The residents have also preserved their linguistic heritage and speak the Niʻihau dialect of Hawaiian as their first language

As for the population, according to the 2010 census, 170 people are living on the island. However, visitors who have stepped on the island affirm only 35 to 50 people inhabit Ni’ihau. 

Ni’ihau’s history, culture, and enigmatic charm have drawn the attention of thousands of people from all over the world. However, Bruce and Keith Robinson continue honoring their promise of protecting Ni’ihau’s culture and inhabitants, which means restricting foreigners’ access to the island as much as possible. 

While the Robinsons brothers still forbid any contact with the locals and restrict access to most parts of the island, they have allowed brief visits since the mid- 2000s. Visitors have only three and a half hours to explore the unspoiled beauty of one of Ni’ihau’s rustic coasts, Nanina Beach.  Besides these brief tours, the policy remains the same, only natives and relatives of the Robinsons family can enter the island. It doesn’t matter who you are; both brothers have turned down offers from celebrities, royals, and the ultra-rich who want to spend a few days exploring the island and getting to know the locals. 

Have other questions about the history of Ni’ihau? Comment below.

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I was born on the East Coast and currently live in the Midwest – but my heart will always be out West. I lived for 15 years in Alaska, as well as four years each in California and Washington. I share travel resources and stories based on my personal experience and knowledge.

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